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8.1: The Importance of an Introduction

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Explain the general length of an introduction.
    2. List and explain the five basic functions of an introduction.
    3. Understand how to use three factors of credibility in an introduction.


    A man passing through a door that says

    The introduction for a speech is generally only 10 to 15 percent of the entire time the speaker will spend speaking. This means that if a speech is to be five minutes long, the introduction should be no more than forty-five seconds. If a speech is to be ten minutes long, then the introduction should be no more than a minute and a half. Unfortunately, that 10 to 15 percent of a speech can either make an audience interested in what we have to say or cause them to tune out before we've started. Overall, a good introduction should serve five functions, goals, and/or purposes (A, B, C, D, and E). Let’s examine each of these.

    A: Gain Audience Attention and Interest

    The first goal of an introduction is to gain the audience’s attention and make them interested in the speech. One of the biggest mistakes that novice speakers make is to assume that people will naturally listen because the speaker is speaking. While many audiences may be polite and not talk while a speaker is speaking, actually getting them to listen is a completely different challenge. Let’s face it—we’ve all tuned someone out at some point because we weren’t interested in what they had to say. If we do not get the audience’s attention at the outset, it will only become more difficult to do so as we continue speaking. We’ll talk about some strategies for grabbing an audience’s attention later on in this chapter.

    B: State the Speech's Purpose

    The second major function of an introduction is to reveal the purpose of the speech. We all have sat through speeches, church sermons, class lectures and wondered what the speaker, preacher, and/or teacher was actually talking about. An introduction is important because it forces the speaker to be mindfully aware of explaining the topic of the speech to the audience. If the speaker doesn’t know what her, his, or their topic is and cannot convey that topic to the audience, then we’ve got really big problems! Robert Cavett, the founder of the National Speaker’s Association, used the analogy of a preacher giving a sermon when he noted, “When it’s foggy in the pulpit, it’s cloudy in the pews.”

    As we discussed in Chapter 5 “Finding a Purpose and Selecting a Topic”, the specific purpose is the one idea we want our audience to remember when we are finished with our speech. The specific purpose is the rudder that guides your research, organization, and development of main points. The more clearly focused our purpose is, the easier our task will be in developing our speech. In addition, a clear purpose provides the audience with a single, simple idea to remember even if they daydream during the body of our speech. To develop a specific purpose, we should complete the following sentence: “I want my audience to understand that…” Notice that the specific speech purpose is phrased in terms of expected audience responses, not in terms of the speaker's own perspective.

    C. Establish Speaker Credibility

    One of the most researched areas within the field of communication has been Aristotle’s concept of ethos or credibility. First, and foremost, the concept of credibility must be understood as a perception of receivers. Essentially, the audience determines whether or not a speaker is credible, but a speaker has many opportunities to influence the audience's perception. Even if we think we are the most competent, caring, and trustworthy individuals, the audience has to believe it. As public speakers, we need to make sure that we explain to our audiences why we are credible speakers on a given topic.

    James C. McCroskey and Jason J. Teven (1999) have conducted extensive research on credibility and have determined that an individual’s credibility is composed of three factors: competence, trustworthiness, and caring/goodwill. Competence is the degree to which a speaker is perceived to be knowledgeable or expert in a given subject by an audience member. Some individuals are given expert status because of positions they hold in society. For example, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General during the Biden Administration, is expected to be competent in matters related to health and wellness as a result of being the United States’ top physician.

    Dr. Vivek Murthy

    But what if we do not possess a fancy title that lends itself to established competence? We need to explain to the audience why we are competent to speak on our various topics. Keep in mind that even well-known speakers are not perceived as universally credible. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy may be seen as competent on health and wellness issues, but may not be seen as a competent speaker on trends in Latin American music or different ways to cook summer squash. Like well-known speakers, we need to establish our credibility on each topic we address, so establishing our competence about the energy efficiency of furnace systems during an informative speech does not automatically mean we will be seen as competent on the topic of organ donation for a persuasive speech.

    The second factor of credibility noted by McCroskey and Teven is trustworthiness, or the degree to which an audience member perceives a speaker as honest. Nothing will turn an audience against a speaker faster than if the audience believes the speaker is lying. When an audience does not perceive a speaker as trustworthy, the information coming out of the speaker’s mouth is automatically perceived as deceitful. The speaker could be 100 percent honest, but the audience will still find the information suspect. For example, in the summer of 2009, many Democratic members of Congress attempted to hold public town-hall meetings about health care. For a range of reasons, many of the people who attended these town-hall meetings refused to let their elected officials actually speak because the audiences were convinced that the members of Congress were lying.

    In these situations, where a speaker is in front of a very hostile audience, there is little a speaker can do to reestablish that sense of trustworthiness. These public town-hall meetings became screaming matches between the riled-up audiences and the congressional representatives. Some police departments actually ended up having to escort the representatives from the buildings because they feared for their safety. Check out this video from to see what some of these events actually looked like: These incidents serve to underscore how important speaker trustworthiness is across speaking contexts.

    Caring/goodwill is the final factor of credibility noted by McCroskey and Teven. Caring/goodwill refers to the degree to which an audience member perceives a speaker as caring about the audience member. As noted by Wrench, McCroskey, and Richmond (2008), “If a receiver does not believe that a source has the best intentions in mind for the receiver, the receiver will not see the source as credible. Simply put, we are going to listen to people who we think truly care for us and are looking out for our welfare” (p. 33-34). As a speaker, then, we need to establish that our information is being presented because we care about our audience and are not just trying to manipulate them. We should note that research has indicated that caring/goodwill is the most important factor of credibility. This means that if an audience believes that a speaker truly cares about the audience’s best interests, the audience may overlook some competence and trust issues.

    D. Provides Audience Reasons to Listen

    The fourth major function of an introduction is to establish a connection between the speaker and the audience, and one of the most effective means of establishing a connection with the audience, is to provide them with reasons why they should listen to the speech. The idea of establishing a connection is an extension of the notion of caring/goodwill. In the chapters on Language and Speech Delivery, we spend more time discussing how to establish a good relationship with the audience. However, this relationship starts the moment a speaker steps to the front of the room and begins speaking.

    Instead of assuming the audience will make their own connections to the speech material, effective speakers should explicitly state how the information might be useful to the audience. Tell them directly how they might use the information themselves. Build a bridge to the audience by explicitly connecting the topic to their possible needs.

    E. Previews Main Ideas

    The last major function of an introduction is to preview the main ideas that will be covered in the body of the speech. A preview establishes the direction the speech will take. We sometimes call this process signposting because we're establishing signs for audience members to look for while we are speaking. In the most basic speech format, speakers generally have three to five major points they plan on making. During the preview, a speaker outlines what these three to five points will be, which demonstrates to the audience that the speaker is organized.

    A study by Baker (1965) found that individuals who were unorganized while speaking were perceived as less credible than those individuals who were organized. Having a solid preview of the information contained within one’s speech and then following that preview will definitely help a speaker’s credibility. It also helps the audience keep track of where the speaker is in the speech if they momentarily daydream or get distracted.

    Key Takeaways

    • Introductions are only 10–15 percent of one’s speech, so speakers need to make sure they think through the entire introduction to ensure that they will capture an audience. During an introduction, speakers attempt to impart the general and specific purpose of a speech while making their audience members interested in the speech topic, establishing their own credibility, and providing the audience with a preview of the speech structure.
    • A speaker’s perceived credibility is a combination of competence, trustworthiness, and caring/goodwill. Research has shown that caring/goodwill is probably the most important factor of credibility because audiences want to know that a speaker has their best interests at heart. At the same time, speakers should strive to be both competent and honest while speaking.


    1. What are the five basic functions of an introduction? Discuss with your classmates which purpose you think is the most important. Why?
    2. Why is establishing a relationship with one’s audience important? How do you plan on establishing a relationship with your audience during your next speech?
    3. Of the three factors of credibility, which do you think is going to be hardest to establish with your peers during your next speech? Why? What can you do to enhance your peers’ perception of your credibility?


    Baker, E. E. (1965). The immediate effects of perceived speaker disorganization on speaker credibility and audience attitude change in persuasive speaking. Western Speech, 29, 148–161.

    McCroskey, J. C., & Teven, J. J. (1999). Goodwill: A reexamination of the construct and its measurement. Communication Monographs, 66, 90–103.

    Wrench, J. S., McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (2008). Human communication in everyday life: Explanations and applications. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, pp. 33–34.

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